I wrote a novel some 10 years ago, and like most novels by unknowns (especially when they are academics), it was never published. The main theme concerned an issue that had troubled me for at least seven years: how boys and young men were falling behind girls and young women in school and in achievement, how so many of them seemed to lack direction, and how society hadn't seemed to notice.
The hero of my novel certainly bore a resemblance to me, and because it was a novel he could easily do what it would have been very hard for me to do, which was to start a boys' movement, or, more specifically, a parents-of-sons movement. And in my novel, it took off.
Why hasn't such a movement actually started, or, if one has, why hasn't it taken off? Almost every parent of a young son that I speak to -- and by young, I mean from childhood through at least 30 years old -- has concerns about him that parents of daughters are much less likely to have. But they rarely see it as a national problem; they see it as their family's problem.
It was not this way when a movement started for girls, which dates back to at least the first "Take Our Daughters to Work" day in 1993 and the 1994 publication of Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls by Myra and David Sadker. What drove these projects? The women's movement, for sure ("Daughters to Work" was sponsored by the Ms. Foundation), and also the simple fact of having daughters.
Of course, loving parents are going to be concerned about their children. I strongly suspect that part of the motivation for the Sadkers was that their children were girls. I know that a major motivation for me was that my children were boys.
I date my concern for the plight of boys and young men to a derogatory remark about men made by Robin Morgan on television in late 1992. Morgan, editor of "Sisterhood Is Powerful" and later editor of Ms. magazine referred to "pale males," a term I had not heard before, but which clearly had elements of racism and sexism in it. Up until that moment, I had been a strong supporter of feminism, but suddenly I realized that her obvious contempt for men (trying somehow to exclude African-American men from her antipathy) included the people I loved with everything in my soul: my three sons, all "pale males." She was attacking my children.
I wrote a piece on this, on how it felt to be the father of sons at a time when feminists didn't think twice about attacking men. I titled it "Loving Pale Males," and sent it to the New York Times magazine, which back then had a bi-weekly feature called "About Men" (alternating with "Hers."). A few weeks later, the editor called to say it had missed getting published by one vote of the editorial board.
I was extremely disappointed, but would it have really made any difference if had been published then, back in 1993? I mentioned in the piece that I had noticed that girls were doing much better than the boys in my son's high school, and that the women in the college classes I taught were doing better than the men ("excelling in every area," is how I put it; and I added "For years now, it has been the women in my classes, far more than the men, who seem highly motivated to succeed.") If our country, 17 years later, with the gender gap much larger, still isn't ready to embrace a genuine boys' and young men's movement, would my piece have caused more than a tiny ripple in the pond of gender correctness?
As the years went by, and the data showing boys lagging behind girls became so clear and so massive as to be undeniable, I kept wondering, Where were the parents of boys? And I still wonder. How could any mother of a son not fight for her child's best interests? "Take Our Daughters to Work" day ultimately became "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work," only when it became glaringly obvious that boys needed inspiration at least as much as girls (to very much understate it); but there has never been a national "Take Our Sons to College" day, as there should be.
I don't know the answer, but I have some ideas. No one wants to do anything that might make it look like we're trying to stop girls from achieving their full potential. Up until very recently, I found it hard to talk about the boys issue with friends who had daughters but no sons. I would ooh and aah when they told me of the schooling, achievements, and sometimes even the salaries of their daughters, but inside I was envious and angry. Their children have grown up in a world where a whole social movement essentially said, "You go, girl!" My children have grown up in one which essentially said, "You're a boy, so we don't have to pay any special attention to you."
I don't begrudge anyone the strong desire to see his or her child succeed to his or her greatest potential. So I can well understand parents of daughters pushing them to achieve and delighting in their achievements; and I can even understand how the Sadkers could rail against what they perceived as gender inequity in the classroom.
But what I don't understand, and what more than galls me, is how parents of sons, even today, don't all realize that boys across the industrialized world are in trouble, and worst of all, that many mothers of sons continue to fight only for the aspirations of girls and young women, who, when it comes to school, ambition, and achievement, need our help far less than our sons do.
It's not a matter of loving "pale males," but rather loving and supporting males of every color. And with reference to race and ethnicity, keep this in mind: Feminists actively supporting girls in the 1990s into the '00s, rather than supporting all our children, meant that African-American boys were excluded along with white boys. A rising tide lifts all boats, and though African-Americans still lag well behind whites in college enrollment, black women are certainly doing far better than their brothers (according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, as of 2007 for every 100 African-American women earning a bachelor's degree there were only 50 men).
I have a feminist friend who has one son, who is in his 20s. He is doing okay, more than okay compared to many of his peers, but still perhaps not as well as many of his female contemporaries. But she still strongly supports the aspirations of young women, decrying any arguments that boys are in trouble. She is in her 60s, and I realize that as a woman she has suffered in ways that I have not. But the world her son has grown up in is not the one in which she came of age. Consider this: A few years ago, when I asked my middle daughter-in-law, who was then 27, if she had ever heard of women's consciousness-raising groups, she said no. She grew up knowing that she could do anything.
In fact, this is the problem in a nutshell, that expression: "You can do anything." For girls it means you can be a lawyer, doctor, businessperson, governor, and, someday, yes, president. For boys, it has come to mean, "You don't have to push yourself the way I did. You can be your own person. And if that means playing in a rock band or aspiring to be a professional athlete or playing videogames all day long, so be it."
But this is a world headed toward social disaster. Some of the best books on the boys issue have been written by men with daughters but no sons (Michael Gurian's A Fine Young Man, Leonard Sax's Boys Adrift, Richard Whitmire's Why Boys Fail). I think they recognize that ultimately what happens to boys and young men will affect young women too. Their daughters' pool of eligible partners is shrinking and will continue to do so.
Ultimately, if more and more women marry men below them in education, status and achievement, is this something to welcome? It didn't work out when it was the women who were not accomplishing to their full potential. Is there any reason to believe it will work out any better when it's the men?
But we cannot expect our sons and grandsons to turn themselves around. Children didn't start "Take Our Daughters to Work Day." Adults did. The parents (and grandparents, and aunts and uncles) of girls supported them as a cause. Sons have not had that. Many of them, in fact, have mothers who, for whatever reasons in their own backgrounds, marriages, or feminist concerns, still support the aspirations of girls more than those of boys, and this has got to change.
Starting with the birth of my father's brother almost 100 years ago, I have been in a bloodline of nothing but males. I have one brother, three sons, and now three grandsons. No one could love their children and grandchildren more than I do, but, still, I would love to have a granddaughter. I'm sure our whole family will celebrate for weeks if and when a girl finally arrives, and perhaps, looking into her sweet face, I will imagine all the wonderful things she might achieve in her lifetime, in this world without limits.
But as of now, all my children and grandchildren are male. I can't expect everyone to share the passion I feel about the needs of boys and young men, but I think it way past time for every mother and father of sons to realize that we must support our children, not just individually but as a group. Some of my feminist friends, whose sons are struggling, say they have started to come around to my way of thinking. I welcome their recognizing that it's not just their sons who are floundering, but boys and young men across the country -- actually, across the industrialized world.
For those who look at the fact that it is men who still control the reins of power, I'll end with these words from my novel, from the fictional leader of what -- in my dream -- became a major movement:
"I love my boys...I love them more than I love life itself. And I can't stand it when I have to feel embarrassed defending their needs because they're supposed to be privileged. They don't feel privileged. They're children, for God's sake!"